Huntington is fast becoming a hot spot for craft brews and festivals.

By Jean Hardiman

Walk into The Peddler on Third Avenue and you’ll see signs of how Huntington entrepreneurs are putting their stamp on the city and the state economy.

It’s in the shape of large silver tanks, which are right at the front of the restaurant and are brewing locally produced craft beer and making the clear statement to patrons that Huntington — like all major cities in America today — is a place where you can have a unique experience with both your meal and your beer.Simply put, The Peddler has Huntington’s first craft brewery; and just past it, in the dining area, you’ll see people of all ages enjoying one-of-a-kind foods and beverages.

This is a scene occurring in more places across Huntington, where craft beer has been attracting patrons and pumping dollars into the economy.

The rising popularity of craft beer isn’t exclusive to The Peddler and its adjoining restaurant, Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar, though. It’s also evident throughout the city including such places as TAPS at Heritage, owned by Ray Frye and Allison White; Summit, owned by Jeff McKay; Black Sheep Burrito and Brews and Bahnhof Biergarten, both owned by Patrick Guthrie; Huntington Ale House, owned by Mackie Robertson; and Marshall Hall of Fame Café, a franchise based out of Columbus, Ohio. If you need more proof, then look no further than the astounding success of local beer festivals such as Rails & Ales, which welcomed some 6,000 guests last summer. There’s also the inaugural Wild & Wonderful Winter Beer Fest, held in February and hosted by the same organizers, and the new BrewGrass Festival, held in May and hosted by TAPS.

Drew Hetzer, owner of The Peddler and Backyard Pizza, likes to stop and talk to his customers every once in a while. So does Jay Fox, his longtime friend and now genius brewer, who heads West Virginia’s Better Beer Coalition. And what they hear from customers is that Huntington’s growing reputation for good food and craft beer is getting around. They talked to one couple from Houston who stopped because they had heard about the city’s great food and beer all the way in Texas.

“A couple from Cincinnati came to Huntington specifically to check out the great restaurant and beer scene,” Fox said. “They said the combination of the beer, the atmosphere and the food was the best quality combination they’d seen.”

“Being across from the Holiday Inn, we get a lot of people from out of town and they are talking about how awesome Huntington is,” Hetzer said. “I think West Virginia is going in the right direction. Hopefully, that will continue in the state in terms of economic development.”

It’s already getting there Brew pubs, which first got permission to sell their own beer by the glass in 1991, are growing in number in West Virginia. In 2009, the craft beer industry was further supported when the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) cap was raised from 6 to 12 percent.

Jon Elmore

“This created a positive spark for the West Virginia craft beer industry,” said Amber Evans of the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. “There were five breweries in West Virginia in 2009. Today there are 25 breweries with six more in planning.”

According to the Brewers Association, West Virginia craft breweries have an economic impact of $293 million per year and employ 1,800 full-time employees whose average wage is $42,394.

“A lot of growth has happened in recent years in light of legislative and regulatory updates,” Evans said. “As the industry continues to develop, this also encourages growth in state tourism as so many travelers now seek out ‘Beercations’ and often plan trips around craft brewery locations.”

West Virginia has a new selling point“Everyone talks about how pretty West Virginia’s mountains are. It’s cool that people come here to experience that and it’s one of our biggest draws,” Hetzer said. “But now they’re coming for beer. One of the best things about brewing your own beer is that you can create a unique tasting experience with a ‘wow factor.’ Jay is constantly coming up with new ideas and styles, seasonals and year-round beers. The beer and the food complement each other so well.”

Their beers’ names celebrate both the history of Huntington and Hetzer’s family history, of which The Spectacular James Hetzer Intercontinental Circus, which toured from the 1930s to the 1960s, is a part. Some of their beers are the Happy Hunty (named for Collis P. Huntington), as well as the Bearded Lady, the Boogercat Brown Ale (named for Wayne County’s legendary crops-eating creature during the Depression) and the popular Fist Bump. Fox recently created a porter from molasses bought from Calhoun County, which he called “Sunny Cal Molasses Porter,” inspired by how his mother always calls Calhoun County “Sunny Cal.”

“If you source locally for beer, that goes back into the local economy,” said Hetzer, who hired Fox as a brewer about a year ago.

Fox took the scenic route to becoming a brewer. A chemistry major at Marshall University, he worked as the operations manager at Hercules International in Huntington for several years before Hetzer hired him to run The Peddler’s brewery.

“I’d been home brewing for 20 years. I kept giving Drew different beers that I’d made,” Fox said. “Little did I know that someday he’d say, ‘I want to open a brewery and I want you to be involved.’”

Fox went to commercial brewing school, the American Brewers Guild in Vermont, to hone his skills. Both men knew that having a brewery — especially one right up front — would be an attraction to the two restaurants.

And they’re not the only ones who are benefiting from the craft beer movement.McKay opened Summit in 2013 in Heritage Station to provide a bar that focused mainly on craft beer. He had been to places like Portland, Oregon, and Asheville, North Carolina, and wanted to bring similar offerings to Huntington.

Summit quickly expanded and now, at its Ninth Street Plaza location, has 27 craft beer taps and a bottle list with over 200 selections.

“We work closely with distributors, breweries and importers to bring in world-class beer,” McKay said. “Our beer selection has never been better. We offer something for everybody, from beer nerds to novices. I really think our customers appreciate that. And the fact that we’ve been named the top craft beer bar in West Virginia for the past three years by the Brewers Association is a testament to that.”

Guthrie’s involvement in the local beer scene started back in 2006 with his own bar — V Club. He said good craft beer was available only in bottles at that time.

“From there, better beer was becoming available, and in 2011 I opened Black Sheep, where we started offering 14 draft beers,” Guthrie said. “We decided to only carry craft beer and Pabst Blue Ribbon, which was necessary as an affordable beer on draft. During that time, the craft beer scene was really starting to take off and more breweries started opening in West Virginia.”

In 2013, he started working with the Charleston Brewing Company (CBC) where they brewed a collaboration beer called Black Sheep Nitro Milk Stout.

“That really started our relationship with Charleston Brewing,” Guthrie said. “In 2014, CBC decided they wanted to close their brew pub so they could better concentrate on the beer production. We struck a deal to take over their restaurant which became the second location for Black Sheep Burrito & Brews.” Two years later CBC decided to sell the brewery to Guthrie who changed the name to Bad Shepherd Beer Company.

“We knew the brewing system made great beer,” he said. “From there, we brought on a new brewer, Ross Williams, who we relocated back to West Virginia from South Carolina. His brewing experience was from Morgantown Brewing Company, where he was an assistant brewer. His brewing style really brought together the approach we wanted for the brewery.”

“We take chances with the beer styles and are always trying to innovate beer and produce styles that are exciting or have their own twist,” Guthrie continued. “In our first year we produced over 60 different beer variants that include some barrel-aged beers and a sour program, where we blend wild fermented beer that has been aged in wine barrels. There are a couple beers that have become staples and we try to keep on tap all year long like The Loud! IPA, which has become popular for its juicy characteristic from the aroma hops we use. We do our own distribution in the state and deliver beer as far as Morgantown, Snowshoe, Fayetteville and Beckley. We currently carry up to 10 or 11 taps of Bad Shepherd Beer Company brews at Black Sheep and our other restaurant, Bahnhof.”

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